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Dear Mr. Tiger, What To Say To You?

On April 6th 2020, the city of Detroit said our final farewell to our own #6. Albert William Kaline, AKA “Mr.Tiger” had passed away.

Al Kaline by PunkToad is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Dear Mr. Tiger, What To Say To You?

Estimated Reading Time: 11 Minutes

*Authors Note: I started writing this piece just under a year ago after a moment I could never have dreamed of having. It’s a moment that I can only now fully appreciate a year, a pandemic, and a whole lot of upheaval later. If I’m being wholly transparent I was terrified to go back and read the draft I first wrote and to re-visit the rollercoaster of emotions that I’ve felt over the last year. At that point, we were only a month into yet another event of living history that my generation would like to forget. It’s been edited and updated since then.

On Monday, April 6th, 2020, the city of Detroit unknowingly said our final farewell to our own number 6. It was on that day that Albert William Kaline, a.ka. “Mr. Tiger”, passed away. Sure, baseball lost a legend. But a city and a lot of people, my family included, lost something even bigger.

A Family Affair

This is not the first time I’ve gotten personal on this site and it likely won’t be the last. I’m a highly sensitive and emotional being. As much as I fight it I wouldn’t want to be any other way. It’s what makes me me and the more I learn to both love and learn about myself I think that ability to feel deeply is one of my biggest strengths. It’s also one of the best qualities I inherited from my dad.

Since I joined The Turf staff almost 3 years ago my mom has begged me to write something about Al Kaline. Sadly, she finally got her wish. I’m going to take this moment to embarrass her by telling you all that she cried when I broke the news to her. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “he was my hero”. I don’t think it’s actually all that embarrassing seeing as those words came from someone who lost her own father at only 10 years old and was born in 1953, which was the same year that Kaline signed. She’s never known the Detroit Tigers organization without Al Kaline.

(I am however going to embarrass her by posting this picture that I made her pose for 3 years ago in Cooperstown. You’re welcome mom! I bet you’re regretting this now. )

You’ve brought this upon yourself mom

I’ve touched a little on the events that affected my own family since that September, but the first time they really hit home was last April. Shit, I’ve barely talked to my extended family about what happened. I bet you weren’t on reading a piece of Katie Pierce’s family history today, were you? Well, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version…

I moved home to Michigan in November of 2019.

That seems like an eternity ago at this point. When I made the decision my dad, my own hero, had had a stroke the previous September. This wasn’t the only reason I decided to come back, but it was probably the biggest. Also, in case you’ve never experienced it, moving in New York City is a pain in the ass.

I admit that I had no idea what I was in store for when I came back. The culture shock of leaving the only city I’d been an “adult” in and sacrificing my sense of independence and all of my most important relationships today to move back into my high school bedroom for the first time in over 15 years was nothing I could have prepared for. But it was home, my mom needed help with my dad now that his mobility was greatly reduced and it felt like the right thing to do at the time.

History Has It’s Eyes On You

What I was not prepared for when I came home was the sense of loss I would feel even when I was sitting right next to my dad. Sure I’d seen him slow down a little over the years when he’d visit me in New York but we all experience that feeling as we age. Stairs become steeper and quick pivots become harder. But this was the first time that I’d seen him as an old man. He needed a walker now to go anywhere and do even the simplest of tasks like making a sandwich. He often would test his limits, (and ours), by thinking that he could get up quickly and grab something without it. That didn’t usually end well seeing how comprised the lower half and left side of his body had been by his stroke. Add on to that fact that he’s been dealing with neurological issues for most of his life.

Chronic illnesses are a slow burn. My dad was diagnosed as epileptic when he was only 10 years old. I grew up with his occasional seizures as a part of my life. As early as the age of 6, I knew to look for an accidental eye roll and to know to make him lay down somewhere where he wouldn’t hit his head. And to always have a towel handy. I didn’t think of it as all that unusual. It was just what I was used to. As an adult, I learned that the things I was so comfortable with were not things most kids had to deal with.

But these kinds of illnesses eventually catch up with you. And what I’ve learned all too well, is that the Brain is the most fickle of beasts. Let’s just say that his setbacks have often outweighed his success’ and it’s been no fault on anybody, but his body.

There was however a silver lining in all of this at the time and that was getting to sit next to my (almost) 70-year-old father and share memories and quality time in ways that we may never have had otherwise.

With Spring Training canceled, and no live baseball in sight, the local Fox Sports (now Bally Sports) channel turned to re-airs of classic Tigers games in honor of Al. Between watching game 7 of the ’68 World Series and the final game at Tiger Stadium in ’99 I had the privilege to relive memories that we once shared together and also hear him recount, to the best of his ability and sometimes somewhat unintelligibly, ones that I never experienced. I got to see the little boy that loved baseball come out again.

When he turned to me on those nights though and gave me a smile like the one below, I felt at home in a way that I can’t quite describe. My dad is the nicest and most stubborn old cuss out there, as is evidenced by how many times he often tried to “free-wheel it” without his walker. If there’s something that can always make him, and us, feel better it’s baseball.

It’s not from Tiger Stadium but it’s close enough. Only a mile away to be exact.

One of a K-(al)-IN(e)-D

Kaline’s career was one to be marveled at. When you ask anyone in baseball they’ll always tell you, “He played the game the right way”. He was a no-doubt first-ballot Hall of Famer. He has his own “Korner” at Comerica Park. It’s the only section my mom ever wants to sit in when we go to games. Not only did he play on the field at Tiger Stadium but he also sat in the broadcast booth. Al Kaline was often the first face new players would see upon entering the organization whether it be in Lakeland, at Tiger Stadium, or Comerica Park. The lovable “grandfather” of the organization. He went from on the field to the broadcast booth to the front office and was a staple of the organization for over six decades.

There are some incredible sports cities around our country. I’m not going to fight you on that. I’ve lived in two of them. I’ve met people from others. But no one, (and maybe I’m biased), compares to Detroit fans. Especially Tigers fans. I’ve never seen a fan base so dedicated. The Old English D represents over 100 years of memories and there is no figure that I can think of who represents that emblem better and longer than Mr. Tiger. The only equals I can think of to him across the history of Detroit sports are the only other men to go by their nicknames. They belong to “Mr. Hockey”, aka Gordie Howe, and “The Captain”, aka Steve Yzerman.

It’s only fitting that he left us on the same day as the number that made him so famous. Al Kaline was always quietly elegant that way. He spent over 65 years as Tiger. That’s basically as long as both of my parents have been alive. He united generation after generation. In many ways, he reminds me so much of my dad.

At the time all I wanted to do was fast forward to the other side of this pandemic and a feeling of normalcy, but I also would not trade that pause in time that I got to spend sharing these moments with my parents for anything. We’ve all experienced so much loss over the last year. It might have come professionally or personally, or maybe it was both. Personally speaking, things have absolutely not worked out the way I would have wanted to on so many fronts.

I haven’t been in the same room as my dad for well over six months now, and I haven’t hugged him in at least eight. He’s currently living in an assisted care facility with people who can care for him better in many ways than my mom and I can. I have no shame when I say that I have cried more in this last year than I probably have in the previous 34 years combined, and that’s a lot considering that I lost three family members in one calendar year in 2011. I don’t know the next time I will be able to sit next to my dad in the same room and watch a baseball game together. So for now, I will hold extra tight to that night of black and white Tigers TV.

I’ve talked a lot about Girl Dad’s on this site. I tweet about it alllllll of the time. But that’s because they are so important.

When they’re good they’re great and it always comes in quiet ways. It’s things that are as small as a soccer skill drill in the front yard. Or quietly and confidently answering a question about the rules that apply to whatever sport you are watching together on any given day. It’s the confidence you quietly instill in her that, as a daughter of a father, she does know what she’s talking about when it comes to sports no matter how much some drunk dude in a bar tries to quiz her about some trivial stat that no one besides him cares about.

It’s all about all of the little moments that show her, through your actions, that she is worthy of competing and succeeding and she shouldn’t let anyone cut down or discount her successes. I can only hope that he can also find his own version of success again and come home to a more normal and independent life.

This probably sounds like some kind of weird eulogy so far. It’s not. My dad is doing pretty well and is very much alive. But I’d absolutely be lying to both you and myself if I said that I haven’t had many breakdowns when I thought I was actually going to lose him over the last year. I’ve had an incredible support group that has been there to catch me when I fall. Or at least be on the other side of a phone call or FaceTime when I’m sitting on my porch or deck and am sobbing.

And to those that I haven’t shared as much with just know that it has nothing to do with you, there’s just been a lot to explain. Hell, I certainly didn’t think I’d still be in this house and this feeling of limbo almost a year from when I sat in a comfy chair watching something as silly and insignificant as a 50 plus-year-old World Series game last April 6th.

If there’s one thing I’ve gotten better at over the last year it’s admitting when I’m really not doing ok. It’s been a reckoning that has been a long time coming. I know I haven’t handled everything perfectly, but who has? The other thing that has definitely helped was the addition of a little feline friend who was appropriately named after number 6 seeing as we picked her up on my mom’s birthday weekend and he was her favorite player after all…

That’s Alberta Wilma Kayline to you sir!

Al was never shy about how much he loved not only the game of baseball but also the Tigers organization and the fans in the city of Detroit and how much they meant to him. What he may not have fully realized was just how much HE meant to the city and to its fans and how much his loss has affected all of us.

Some day when my kids ask about how I managed through this pandemic. I will look back not just to baseball, but these quiet moments this time allowed me to share with those I love the most. So, for that, and everything else that I can and cannot find a way to say, I say…

Thank You, Mr. Tiger

An actor by degree, sports lover by day, and a bartender by night. As a native of suburban Detroit it took moving to NYC for Katie to fully realize her love of all things Michigan and Detroit sports. Feel free to engage her in her love of the coolest city and prettiest state in the country and why she will always root for Ohio State to lose every sporting event ever. No, really I am dead serious about that last statement.

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